Uncle Blair by Sylvia Townsend Warner, 1955

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by Sylvia Townsend Warner, 1955

The opening of Sylvia Townsend Warner's "Uncle Blair" suggests a charming, gently comical tale of personalities in the delightful setting of Tittingham, a small Devonshire town in the depths of the country in 1930, a tranquil time in English history. Things do not, however, develop as might be expected. Aubrey Cutbush is an unmarried gentleman of independent means who has spent five years in Asia Minor collecting material for a volume that will vindicate the reputation of Sir John Mandeville, the fourteenth-century author whose widely read travel writings have always been regarded with suspicion. On returning to his comfortable home, Aubrey makes a distressing discovery. Opie Cottage, where he had been born 60 years before, has been pulled down. The plan is to develop the site as a museum of local folklore in memory of Miss Iris Foale, a worthy headmistress who made notable contributions to the moral and material prosperity of the town by successfully running a private boarding school for girls and whose twin interests were reviving various folk customs and forming a collection of historical footwear.

Aubrey decides to assert himself and tries to stop the project. He does so by writing more or less disingenuous letters to the local press, with Warner not letting slip the opportunity of composing delicious parodies of the sort of protests often found in English provincial newspapers. To his surprise, Aubrey finds an ally in another correspondent, one who signs herself Dulcibella Tregurtha, B.Litt. If the name Tregurtha is redolent of the West Country and the academic grade perhaps not quite so impressive as its proud possessor imagines, Dulcibella hints at a certain bourgeois pretentiousness and also seems to betoken a petite, pretty girl. Aubrey is therefore quite taken aback when he invites Dulcibella to dine in the secure setting of the Athenaeum, his very respectable London club, and finds himself confronted by a robust lady at least six feet tall. Glimpsing her as she arrives, he mutters to himself, "Quite an amphisbaena." An amphisbaena is a fabulous two-headed serpent with a head at each end, and as we come to see, Aubrey's identification is not far out in a metaphorical sense.

Dulcibella loses no time in declaring her abiding hatred for her former headmistress. Indeed, it was resentment of Miss Foale's prediction that she would never learn to spell that had impelled her to take her B.Litt. degree. But somehow Aubrey's plan to do something about Opie Cottage "was whirled away like the corkscrew that began the process of letting the Djinn out of the bottle." When next he meets Dulcibella, this time in Devon, things begin to take a strange turn. She has brought with her a copy of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, and the bookmarks sticking out from the pages are so many indications that she has been looking up the passages devoted to foot fetishism. She proposes to expound the topic to the good people of Tittingham so that they will know just how they should interpret Miss Foale's collection of boots and shoes.

Dulcibella also has a companion, one Jeanie, an unattractive pale-faced Scots girl with flaxen hair and a marked lisp. When she offhandedly introduces Jeanie, Dulcibella adds, as if it were not a matter of the least consequence, that "she has got the Evil Eye." To Aubrey's inquiry Jeanie replies that the evil eye is "in the family" and that it was from Uncle Blair—of whom we hear no more—that she inherited it. The two women have an impact on the town, where strange accidents start occurring, and Aubrey makes the mistake of quarreling with Jeanie. Illness strikes him, and a visit to London for a round of remarkably expensive and totally useless consultations with Harley Street specialists provide Warner with yet another opportunity for displaying her gift for gentle, well-observed satire. The consultations do no good at all for Aubrey, even though he finally finds Dr. Gregory Ionides, a charlatan who is inclined to take bewitchment seriously. Death comes suddenly to Aubrey, and Warner's laconic and indirect report makes it surprising for readers too. After a brief comment on the success of Aubrey's book when it is published posthumously, the story does not reintroduce Jeanie or Dulcibella. We are simply told, in a final ironic twist, that there now hangs in the Tittingham Folk Museum a watercolor with a label identifying it as Opie Cottage, the birthplace of Aubrey Cutbush, and noting that it had been presented by Dulcibella.

"Uncle Blair" is presented by an omniscient narrator who always views events with tolerant sympathy from Aubrey's point of view, though without going into psychological ramifications. Despite the maintenance of the convention of anonymity, the narrator conveys the impression of a gently benign but quietly amused observer. The story is richly peopled with a cast of characters who, though they belong to recognizable types, which makes for ready identification, have enough personality to hold our interest as individuals. Warner artfully adds details about Aubrey's background and circumstances little by little, gradually building up a persuasive portrait of a universally recognized sort of Englishman. Dulcibella is striking and mysterious too, but she is less so than Jeanie, whose nature, like her possession of the evil eye, remains an enigma to the end. The neat balance between familiarity and uncanniness with regard to the characters is also found in the settings, which form an attractive and convincing frame for the action. Provincial manners are closely observed, with accurate depiction of the social differences that are always an essential part of the English scene, and the expert send-up of country journalism adds a delicious extra.

The main strength of "Uncle Blair" lies, however, in the development of the tale. There are, in effect, two confident beginnings: the project for the folk museum in commemoration of Miss Foale, and Aubrey's willful decision to try to raise opinion against the proposal for a memorial to her achievements. The introduction of Dulcibella leads readers to imagine that he will advance his cause. That, however, is not to be, and, besides, it will not be Dulcibella but rather Jeanie who will dominate events, even though she is not often present and is not seen doing a lot. As for the Uncle Blair of the title, he is no more than mentioned, but it is plain that has left a worrying and potent legacy. Miss Foale found folklore a delightful aspect of West Country life, but "Uncle Blair" leaves us wondering. Are there not more things in folklore than her shallow philosophy ever dreamed of? And has not Aubrey erred in trying to stir up trouble when there was no need to?

—Christopher Smith